“So, did I ever think of myself as a cross-dresser? I think I’d have to say yes, from early on,” an MIT professor emeritus says in the 40-minute documentary—“A Chance to Dress”—reflecting on what it took to come out after a lifetime of secrecy. In “Life Model,” an aging nude figure model inspires passionate works of art. And in “Flat Echo” the wife of a concert pianist with Alzheimer’s hopes to connect with her husband through the music that he wrote.
These and more are part of the Legacy Film Festival on Aging planned for Sept. 20-22 at San Francisco’s New People Cinema in Japantown.
Far too many films with older male actors, including “Grumpy Old Men” and “As Good As It Gets,” feature curmudgeons and crotchety blowhards with leathery faces and a tendency toward pessimism. And older women tend to be soft, sweet and nostalgic, dishing out much needed advice to the wayward young. There are few films that portray aging and the elderly without resorting to these clichés.
So, eighty-one-year-old Sheila Malkind, the executive director of Legacy, decided to address the gritty, urgent and less confronted issues of older people through a series of cinematic presentations. Now in its ninth year, Legacy will screen 21 films , ranging from shorts under six minutes to longer treatments of over an hour.
Malkind hopes viewers will use these films as a springboard to make the most of life. “I don’t want to be a Pollyanna,” she cautioned. The films are about resiliency, hope, overcoming loneliness, and finding ways to cope with the inevitable process of aging and some joyous moments, too.
Malkind gets films from all over the world. There are Belgian, Mexican and Italian films in this year’s lineup. In “América,” a deeply stirring film from Mexico, three young brothers in their twenties who make a living in a Puerto Vallarta beach town, must learn to bridge the gap between dreams and reality when they find themselves taking care of a grandmother suffering from dementia. “There are people who end up with nothing, right?” the grandmother asks one of her grandsons as they lie beside each other on a bed, his head on her shoulder. “That’s how we come into the world,” he responds. “Old, abandoned, with nobody that loves you,” she says, her face a mask of tenderness.
“Our mission is to educate entertain and inspire intergenerational audiences about older people,” Malkind said.
Even as a young woman, Malkind was sensitive to the problems of elders. She credits that to having her grandmother live with her for a while. “I can always tell if a filmmaker has had a grandma in their lives,” remarked Malkind. It’s about developing compassion and sensitivity for the process of aging, she added.
Born in Brooklyn, Malkind attended public school and went on to Hunter College in New York where she paid $33 per semester, including books, she recalled. She later moved to Chicago and worked with the Elder Artisan program, which brought elders together in a community space, knitting, sewing, building and creating. “I’m very unhandy, and yet I had this job which required me to suggest things to make and find places to sell the things that were made,” she said with a touch of self-deprecation. Later she got a masters in clinical psychology and one more in public health with a focus on community health and elders. And then later became the director of Silver Images Film Festival, showing films about adults in Chicago.
When she moved to the Bay Area, she continued her work in presenting films about older adults, finally curating the Legacy series. In some ways, Malkind feels that the festival is successful even as she struggles to make money for the amount of time she spends managing it.
In her work Malkind encounters attitudes toward aging that continue to surprise her. American culture celebrates strength and independence leading to the tendency to believe that the “old and elderly are passé, and that aging is something to be pushed aside.” Even the word “aging,” has negative connotations, she said. She related a recent incident when she was told to remove the word “aging” from the Legacy festival program booklets.
But times are changing. Now, with longer life spans, census demographer Jonathan Vespa predicts that older people are projected to outnumber children in a couple of decades and, by 2035, there will be 78.0 million people 65 years and older. This demographic shift is forcing a re-evaluation of what it means to grow old and how we deliver care for our seniors. “I’m only 81 years old, and maybe at 82, I’ll be frail and have health problems,” Malkind said.
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan